I am Hilary Grabowska, a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador for the National Park Service at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Monocacy National Battlefield, C&O Canal National Historical Park and Catoctin Mountain Park.


Before I became a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador, I served for ten months in AmeriCorps’ FEMA Corps program. I was trained for disaster response and media relations during a disaster. In the ten months that I served, I was never deployed to a disaster.

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Photo: Hilary Grabowska

I was all prepared to work with disaster survivors, to help people rebuild after a disaster and to tell their stories but 2014 had the fewest declared disasters since 2001. And so I shifted gears and learned to work in FEMA’s Headquarters. There, I saw how the day to day work of the Office of External Affairs works to prepare the staff and the public for the next disaster. While I learned a lot in my ten months with FEMA, the biggest take-away was a phrase of FEMA’s: to be “FEMA Flexible.”

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Photo: Hilary Grabowska

FEMA Flexible means that even though you have a plan, things can still change in ways you didn’t even think of and you need to adapt to the new situation. This is crucial when responding to a disaster.

As I move into my fourth month as a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador, FEMA Flexible comes to mind. Working with volunteers means that the situation could change at any moment. We are extremely grateful to our volunteers because they choose to spend their time helping us and sometimes, life gets in the way of that and they have to cancel their volunteer plans. Totally understandable.

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Photo: Hilary Grabowska

Rather than using FEMA’s phrase, I propose that those of us in the profession of working with volunteers have our own similar phrase: “Volunteer Versatile.” The dictionary definition of versatile is “capable of  turning easily from one to another of various tasks.” The Volunteer Program at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park did just this on National Public Lands Day.

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Photo: Hilary Grabowska

Initially, we had a group scheduled to help us close an unauthorized trail but as we got closer to the date, members dropped out until none of them could come and volunteer with us. This was not the end of the world. It was disappointing because we need to close this trail but instead of despairing, we shifted gears and focused on recruiting volunteers on the spot and we ended up with 16 volunteers who cleaned our waysides!

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Photo: Hilary Grabowska

The keys to a successful volunteer project are versatility, enthusiasm and some creativity.  #VolunteerVersatile